This article is republished from ENTER, a digital weekly and print annual produced by the American Institute of Architects Minnesota.
More than 5,500 land use applications. Four to six meetings per month for years. Countless hours of preparation and examination of detailed proposals. The reward for architect and civil servant Alissa Pier, AIA? Making the built environment better for people. And she did it all while running an architecture practice and raising a family.
It all began for Pier 15 years ago, with a position on the Minneapolis Zoning Board of Adjustment; it ended this past January with the completion of her term as vice president of the City of Minneapolis Planning Commission, after nearly 13 years as a commissioner. She sat down with ENTER in March to look back at what that service meant to her, and what she hopes it accomplished for Minneapolis.
“Architects are trained to think beyond the linear, beyond the one-dimensional view of a project,” she says when asked about the value architects bring to public service, especially in planning processes. “We come with questions about context, user experience, and scales and sight lines. It’s part of our training, and those perspectives tend make the final projects better for their communities.
“When we reviewed projects, whether they were the small improvement projects we saw on the Zoning Board of Adjustment or the major projects coming before the Planning Commission, our thought was always about impact,” Pier continues. “How will this project impact the owners, the potential users, the neighborhood, and the city as a whole?”
She says her time on the Zoning Board of Adjustment was a great way to get started in public service. “On the Zoning Board, we had an opportunity to interact with people who may not know anything about architecture, and make them feel seen and heard,” she says. “By helping them work through a small project that was extremely important to them, we could show we care and make design more accessible.”
Her years on the Planning Commission gave her a window into development of all kinds, across all parts of the city. “Just about every major project in Minneapolis needs some sort of variance, whether for height, setback, vegetation, or something else,” she notes. “The Planning Commission asks the tough questions, makes improvements and solves problems, and helps shape land use, project by project, in our city.”
As one example, Pier always advocated for functional balconies on multifamily residential buildings. “Often, a project will come before the commission with balconies that are only four feet deep. A balcony that shallow ends up being used for storage, not people, because it isn’t very usable,” she says. “Whenever I could, I encouraged developers to push it to a six-foot balcony, so that tenants could put out chairs, tables, plants, and other things to make the outdoor space usable. Projects with deeper balconies make their neighborhoods more beautiful and vibrant. It’s a small change to a common feature that makes a big difference.”
Pier also sought to make sure that certain amenity spaces were truly functional. “Buildings often put bike storage in the back of a parking garage, with no other amenities,” she says. “People are so much more likely to use bike storage if it’s close to pedestrian entry and exit points and includes tools for maintenance and air hoses for tires. If riders have to walk through a parking ramp to take care of their bike, the amenity isn’t going to function the way the building owner wants it to; nor will it make bike usage appealing to new riders.”
Of course, usability concerns extend beyond balconies and bike storage to common spaces and the ways that buildings interact with the public realm around them. Pier challenged owners and developers to make all spaces functional and inviting “and not just decorated dead space.”
For Pier, the challenge that lies ahead for the Minneapolis Planning Commission “is the same one it’s always grappled with: having the diligence to ensure that the policies it supports and enacts create the intended outcomes. Good intentions are not enough. Critical thinking and tenacious problem-solving are needed to make a lasting difference.”
Another architect — Bill Baxley, AIA — now sits on the Minneapolis Planning Commission. Pier says encouraging more architects and designers to serve on zoning boards and planning commissions is key to keeping cities engaged with the profession’s expertise and perspective. While balancing full-time practice and public service wasn’t always easy for Pier, she says she would recommend it to every architect. “This is a chance to use your skills in a new way, to make an impact on your community and the spaces within it,” she says. “It also made me a better professional, and helps more people understand what goes into shaping the spaces they use every day.”